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Circulose’s ‘Climate-Friendly’ Material Keeps Clothing Out of Landfills

Circulose wants to put the “circular” in “cellulose.”

The brainchild of Swedish startup Re:newcell, Circulose is the first 100 percent recycled fashion fiber to be produced from old jeans, T-shirts and other discarded clothing at an industrial scale.

Re:newcell has dubbed the fabric “climate-friendly”; the process of making Circulose, it claims, ends up storing greenhouse-gas emissions that would either be released into the atmosphere through incineration or landfill degradation.

While less than 1 percent of old clothing goes on to be made into new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it doesn’t have to be so.

“We cannot keep on using clothes in a straight line,” said Patrik Lundström, CEO of Re:newcell. “Instead we need to find a circular pattern for textiles just as we have done for recycled paper, plastic bottles, glass and electronics.”

The company takes garments that cannot be resold, strips them of zippers and buttons and then “de-dyes” them to remove any color. What remains is crushed into a pulp and picked clean of contaminants such as polyester so only cellulose remains. The slurry is dried and turned into sheets of “pure Circulose,” which are packaged into bales and shipped for processing into textiles. Powered by renewable energy, the entire process is closed loop, according to Re:newcell, meaning that chemicals and water are reclaimed and reused, rather than discharged as effluent.

“We are not only operating a closed-loop system, we are closing the loop on fashion,” Lundström said. “People who choose Circulose cut their waste, climate, water, microplastics and deforestation fashion footprint to almost zero.”

H&M, which claimed a minority stake in Re:newcell in 2017, called dibs on Circulose’s first commercial yardage, which it combined with sustainably harvested wood fibers and transformed into an “easy blue day dress” inspired by the French Riviera.

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If going toe to toe with one of the world’s largest apparel makers wasn’t enough, Re:newcell is set to expand operations even further. Already its first plant Kristinehamn is capable of churning out up to 7,000 tons of pulp yearly. But the company has recently finalized pre-engineering plans to “increase the capacity with several larger plants around the world,” Lundström said.

Scalability is what sets up Circulose for success, he added.

“To make a difference, circular fashion has to be just as good or better than the unsustainable materials in use today,” Lundström said. “The only way to make a change in the fashion industry is at scale.”

What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?

“I think the verbal/written commitments from the fashion industry to become sustainable. They need it to survive but solutions are lacking and that’s where a product like Circulose plays an important role.

There are a lot of great ideas being trialed to make fashion sustainable, but the fact is that the only way to have any real impact on this major industry is to find solutions that can scale.

To make fashion sustainable, we need to make sustainable clothes affordable and accessible to all people around the globe, or else we will fail.”

Sourcing Journal’s Sustaining Voices celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action.

See more of our Sustaining Voices honorees and their stories, here.